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Iowa up for grabs 2 months before GOP caucuses

By Thomas Beaumont

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 7:15 a.m. MDT

Campaign buttons for Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain are seen on sale as he campaigned in Talladega, Ala., Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

Dave Martin, Associated Press

WILTON, Iowa — Iowa's presidential caucuses are any Republican candidate's to win.

Just two months before the GOP nomination voting begins, Iowa Republicans aren't surging toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even though he's essentially been running for president since losing in the state in 2008.

This time, none of his opponents has emerged as the consensus candidate of conservatives to become his main rival, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did four years ago.

As Tamara Scott, an undecided social conservative leader who backed Huckabee in that race, says: "It's anybody's game right now."

That could change soon.

Sensing an opening, Romney is stepping up his Iowa campaign and talking about winning the state after months of taking a more low-key approach. He probably will return to Iowa in November and hold a conference call with thousands of Iowa GOP caucus-goers.

"I'd love to win Iowa, any of us would. I will be here again and again, campaigning here," Romney said recently in Sioux City.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is casting himself as the more conservative option, is starting to confront Romney. With $15 million in the bank, Perry started running a TV ad last week that, without mentioning Romney challenges Romney's efforts to portray himself as the strongest candidate on the economy.

"I'll create at least 2 1/2 million new jobs, and I know something about that," Perry says in the ad that highlights Texas job creation.

Businessman Herman Cain, a political outsider enjoying a burst of momentum, is starting to focus more on Iowa, adding campaign staff and visiting the state recently for the first time in 10 weeks. But he trails both Romney and Perry in fundraising by the millions.

For now at least, the race in Iowa is wide open.

Polls show Romney and Cain at the head of the pack, trailed by about a half dozen others, including Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican, also is a factor. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a moderate on some issues that Iowa Republicans hold dear, is not.

The up-for-grabs nature of the Iowa race matters nationally because the outcome on Jan. 3 will shape what happens in the states that vote next — New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida — and beyond.

As it stands now, Iowa reflects the Republican Party's lack of clarity when it comes to the crowded GOP field and its increasingly urgent search for a candidate who can defeat Democratic President Barack Obama next fall.

"This is the first time I've waited this long to decide," said Linda Allison, an Iowan who recently attended a Perry event. "I am still waiting to be convinced."

Many factors are adding to the volatility.

Large numbers of Iowa Republicans are undecided and just starting to tune into the race in earnest. Fewer than 20 of Iowa's 76 Republican legislators have publicly declared their support for a candidate, and no single candidate has a clear edge among those who have picked sides. At this point four years ago, nearly all lawmakers had endorsed someone.

Consider state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, for whom Perry raised money at a recent event in eastern Iowa.

"Perry may not be the best debater, but he can really work an audience like this," said Kaufmann, who endorsed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson four months before the 2008 GOP caucuses. "And while Romney is well prepared, and campaigns well, I'd like to see him out in this area more."

Critical groups of activists also are waiting to rally behind a candidate, too.

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